Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/October 1885/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
OFFICIAL SCIENCE AT WASHINGTON.

MUCH has been said in the news-papers during the last few weeks about the mismanagement and irregularities that have been disclosed by official inquiries into the administration of the United States Coast Survey. The superintendent of that branch of the public service has been retired from his office; the assistant in charge was also removed, and then restored; and charges have been made against other parties. It is alleged that expenditures are out of all proportion to results, that the service is inefficient, and the department much demoralized. The first question, of course, in regard to such grave accusations is, to what extent are they true? Is the case as bad as alleged, or only an exaggeration of such defects as are always incident to the administration of governmental affairs? It seems that a committee of investigation was appointed by the Treasury Department to look into the working of the Coast Survey. A committee charged with so serious a duty should certainly have made the most careful and searching inquiry, should have given the accused officers the fullest opportunity of defending themselves, and should have published their results in an explicit and authentic form. We are not aware that this has been done; and if so, common justice requires that judgment should be suspended until decisive evidence is forthcoming, because innocence is to be presumed until guilt is established. Upon these points the following remarks from an excellent editorial in "Science" are so appropriate and fair as to be worthy of quotation:

Without the slightest disposition to screen official mismanagement, if it has been discovered, we must caution our readers against giving credence to insinuations and rumors. All who are under implied censure have a right to be fully heard, and to bring all the facts which are explanatory of their conduct to the eye of a qualified tribunal. They have a right to protest against the arbitrary exercise of personal authority, or against the judicial methods of a star-chamber or a drum-head court-martial. No political purpose, no personal dislike, no disbelief in science, should be allowed, unquestioned, to throw discredit upon a branch of the public service, or dishonor upon a corps hitherto regarded as exemplary in all its official work.

The work of the Coast Survey, during its long history, has been of the highest character. For nearly seventy years it has been approved by successive Congresses and administrations, and by navigators, merchants, and men of exact science. It has received the highest encomiums of foreigners who were qualified to judge of its merits, and were interested in pointing out its defects. The five superintendents—Hassler, Bache, Benjamin Peirce, Patterson, and Hilgard—have each, in different ways, improved its methods and upheld its efficiency. The officers just displaced have grown up in the service, and have won promotion by the ability and fidelity with which they have discharged their great responsibilities. The presumptions of official rectitude are in their favor until positive faults are pointed out. They are entitled by the principles of good government, as well as by their individual services, to all the opportunities they may desire for explanation or defense; and any premature opinion is unfair, especially if it is affected by personal prejudices, or is based upon a lack of appreciation for scientific researches.

In the conduct of such a bureau as the Coast Survey, a large amount of discretion must be left to the chief. He, and he only, can determine a vast number of questions which pertain to the selection of assistants for different kinds of work, the choice of fields of labor, the discrimination between services which have an obvious relation to some immediate want of the public, and those which may be just as serviceable, but are recondite, and unintelligible to the uninformed. It is impossible to mark out the duties of the highest assistants by such rules as may be applied to the clerical services of an ordinary counting-room. In order that the results of the survey may be accurate and trustworthy—the only results which are worth having—costly instruments must be bought and used, and must afterward be thrown aside, because other instruments are better, or because their work is done. Still larger outlays are requisite, in order that elaborate and important fundamental inquiries may be prosecuted by men who are trained to exact scientific methods. A staff of learned and experienced investigators is absolutely essential to the conduct of such a national undertaking as the Coast Survey.

Nevertheless, all this scientific research is appreciated by a very small number of persons. Indeed, the more valuable it is, the less obvious may be its merits. Every seaman knows the value of a good chart: not every seaman, not every scholar, not every statesman, knows the conditions by which a good chart is produced. It is only the expert who appreciates the subtile sources of error which must be eliminated: he only knows the infinitude of mathematical, physical, astronomical, and geodetic problems, which are involved in an endeavor to portray faithfully such a coast-line as that of the United States, and to keep the portrayal in accurate correspondence with the changing sands.

There is undoubted weight in the consideration here urged that much of the work of the Coast Survey is of a kind that can be but imperfectly judged by the public, and must be left to the men of science, who can best appreciate its desirableness and its difficulties. This is also the ground taken by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in reviewing the subject. At their recent meeting in Ann Arbor, Professor S. P. Langley proposed the following series of resolutions, which, after discussion, were passed unanimously:

Whereas, The attention of this Association has been called to articles in the public press purporting to give, and presumably by authority, an official report of a commission appointed by the Treasury Department to investigate the condition of the United States Coast-Survey Office, in which report the value of certain scientific work is designated as meager; and

Whereas, This Association desires to express a hope that the decision as to the utility of such scientific work may be referred to scientific men:

Resolved, That the American Association for the Advancement of Science is in earnest sympathy with the Government in its every intent to secure the greatest possible efficiency of the public service.

Resolved, That the value of the scientific work performed in the various departments of the Government can be best judged by scientific men.

Resolved, That this Association desires to express its earnest approval of the extent and high character of the work performed by the United States Coast Survey, especially as illustrated by the gravity determinations now in progress, and to express the hope that such valuable work may not be interrupted.

Resolved, That this Association expresses also the hope that the Government will not allow any technical rule to be established that shall necessarily confine its scientific work to its own employés.

Resolved, That in the opinion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science the head of the Coast Survey should have the highest possible standing among scientific men, and should command their entire confidence.

Resolved, That copies of these resolutions shall be prepared by the General Secretary and certified to by the President of the Association and by the Permanent Secretary, and shall be forwarded to the President of the United States, the Secretary of the Treasury, and given to the press.

The subject was called up and acted upon because of the recent arraignment of the Coast Survey, as stated in the first preamble. In the second the hope is expressed that the decision in regard to the utility of such work—that is, Coast Survey work—may be left to scientific men. But it will be observed that the second resolution covers wider ground, affirming that all "the scientific work performed in the various departments of the Government can be best judged by scientific men."

Now, certainly, nothing can be more true than that scientists are the best judges of scientific work; and, as between these and the officials that are over them, the case may be stated still more emphatically. The successful politicans who get possession of high government offices are apt to be especially incompetent in all matters of science; and, consequently, they must, as a class, be the worst judges of the technical labors of scientific men. What, then, is to be done? The politicians impeach a scientific department for inefficiency, and the scientific men reply by a virtual protest against their capacity to judge of the conduct they condemn. In this they are right; but is it therefore inferable that the scientists are to be left to themselves, and exempted from scrutiny and criticism in the management of their affairs? This assuredly will not do; for if scientific men are qualified on one side, they are disqualified on another and very important side. Like other men, they are self-seeking, ambitious, and have their personal ends to gain. Can we assume that morally they are any better than their neighbors; or that, if they get possession of place and power, they will not use and pervert them to the promotion of their selfish objects? It is to be hoped that in the future science will become so developed as to react upon character and give us men morally as well as intellectually superior; but we are far from any such happy result as yet. Government has boundless wealth at command; it is a mighty patron. Everybody is tempted to get some private advantage through its influence, and scientific men are no exception to their fellow-citizens in exemplifying the general passion, and in desiring to get a share of government patronage. The "scientific politician" has made his appearance in Washington, and the political element in him will dominate the scientific. That he will be a lobbyist and intriguer, and become skilled in the art of getting favors and appropriations from Congress, is but to say that he will work according to his opportunities, objects, and the nature of the materials to be manipulated. An unsupervised and irresponsible scientific department at Washington would be run in the interest of its sharpest managers, would be filled with sinecures, give the least results at the greatest expense, while these results would be aggravated by the sense of exemption from criticism.

We draw a different conclusion from the fact that scientific men are the best judges of their own work, and the politicians who have got the national offices the poorest judges of it. We infer that duties which those officers can not perform in a proper manner they should not undertake. The policy of extending what may be called Government science at Washington is a bad one; whatever is indispensable must be tolerated, but with this qualification the less we have of it the better. The Coast Survey is a work of undoubted national necessity. Its investigations are essential to the national defense; it was begun long ago, in a small way, with no reference to any Government policy respecting the promotion of science; and it has been systematically prosecuted as a matter of unquestionable public importance. But the modern extensions of Government science, as the Department of Agriculture, for example, stand upon no such ground. They have not been called into existence by any special or urgent needs of the state, or to subserve any legitimate function of Government; but they have come through the agency of scheming and ambitious scientific men who sought official power for the advancement of their own objects. Under such inspiration the national Government has entered into rivalry with the private investigators of the country to promote research, develop resources, and accumulate useful knowledge for the people. Millions of money are now spent on investigations of all kinds, on collections and surveys, buildings, apparatus, salaries, and publications made at extravagant cost, and which are without that warrant of necessity which should be the sole reason of any scientific undertaking by the state.

How the immense system of official science at Washington, which Government neither called for nor is competent to supervise, has gradually grown up under outside management, is easily explained. Alliance with politics has been very sedulously and skillfully cultivated by our leading scientific men. The most decisive step in this direction was taken a few years ago, in the organization of the National Academy of Sciences, an institution copied after an old French model. Through its act of incorporation a limited and select number of men became scientific leaders by national authorization. It was a specious and insinuating project, offering itself as a kind of bureau of advice to Congress on all scientific matters. Money was not solicited: the savants were to serve the state for nothing. It was to be a Washington institution, pledged to hold meetings at the capital permanently. The headquarters of the Coast Survey were already established there. The United States Government had accepted the magnificent bequest of Smithson, and established a national institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men"; and the newly instituted Academy of Sciences became the agency for combining the elements to secure the extension of Government patronage to all kinds of scientific undertakings. The tendency to centralization and the enlargement of Government powers, after the war, greatly favored the accomplishment of the work. The great extensions of state education also favored it. A splendid national university, with a twenty-million endowment by the General Government, was strenuously advocated. Everything was thus propitious to the multiplication and consolidation of scientific departments, and to the general plan of employing scientific men to carry on their inquiries at the expense of the state, and under the direction of Government.

For many and urgent reasons we hold that our overgrown Government science ought to be arrested and retrenched. That administrative officers are bad judges of it is one of them. But, even if this were not so, the policy would still be thoroughly objectionable. The promotion of science is not an object for which Government exists. The civil authority has its legitimate duties, and can only perform them by being confined to them. It is the business of Government to maintain the order of society and the rights and liberties of individual citizens by the establishment and enforcement of wise laws; and the sole condition on which this can be accomplished is that the law-makers and law-executors shall allow nothing to interfere with this supreme duty. By attempting to do everything else this is neglected, and the multiplication of government functions ends in the defeat of the objects for which Government exists. We do not say that Government denies the rights of foreign authors and leaves them a prey to American plunderers because it has gone into the promotion of science; but we do say that its absorption in business interests and enterprises has deadened its moral sense so that it has little care about a gross delinquency which is a scandal to the American name throughout the world. Justice between man and man, the first condition of all sound prosperity in communities, can only be enforced by the civil authority; but science can be advanced by private enterprise, individual interest and effort, and voluntary association, better than by state regulation, and there it is better that the Government should leave it.